As a change of pace from our recent columns compiling lists of choice home-viewing items from the celluloid past, this week we’ll take a look at some brand-new movies available for streaming. Many of these were planning theatrical releases before the shutdown, but instead have been re-routed for viewing on the couch of your choice.
Of course older films continue to be re-released on DVD and Blu-ray. Kino Lorber this month has released a trio (on blu-ray only) of early Gary Cooper titles that are all considered among the greatest “exotic” adventures of Hollywood’s “golden age.” In addition to Lewis Milestone’s 1936 The General Died at Dawn, a China-set romantic thriller co-starring prototype Hitchcock blonde Madeleine Carroll, there are two famous tales of fraternal love and bravery in uniform: Henry Hathaway’s 1935 The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, in which Coop and Franchot Tone defend the British Empire’s interests in India; and William Wellman’s 1939 Beau Geste, where he, Ray Milland and Robert Preston are brothers in the Foreign Legion, facing “savage hordes” on one side and a sadistic superior (Brian Donlevy) on the other.
Their colonialist attitudes (not least towards those beastly “natives” barely featured onscreen) so dated it’s hard to take offense, these are “ripping yarns” who still supersede umpteen lesser films of similar type. Plus there’s Gary Cooper, one of the ultimate proofs that great movie stars didn’t necessarily need to be great actors—sometimes, having a great presence (and looks) was more than enough.
The new films detailed below are all already available on various video-on-demand platforms.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Conservatives are increasingly using the epidemic as a bogus excuse for pushing through various irrelevant political skullduggery, from Trump’s deregulation of industrial pollution standards to several states’ banning abortions as an “unnecessary” medical procedure. The latter development lends particular relevance to this latest feature by Eliza Hittman, whose prior Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love were also gritty, naturalistic portraits of working-class East Coast youth.
Here, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) finds herself “in trouble” of the traditional kind. Given an unpleasant domestic situation and a conspicuously anti-choice local doctor limiting options in her depressed Pennsylvania town, she has little choice but to gather meagre resources and take the bus to NYC. On the plus side, she has loyal best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) for moral and practical support. On the downside, they know no one in the big city, and quickly run short on funds while waiting for “the procedure” to happen at a women’s clinic.
Almost as plain a social-realist filmmaker as Brit veteran Ken Loach, Hittman has a more ambiguous storytelling voice, refusing to spell out some basic elements (like who Autumn got “knocked up” by) in order to focus on telling small moments of circumstance and behavior. There’s no sermonizing here. But there is a pervasive sense of how young women remain in many ways as vulnerable to predators as they were before Roe v. Wade, with a student (Theodore Pellerin) who helps the girls here also demanding his pound of flesh in return. At times unsettling, this well-observed drama ultimately finds redemption in the power of female friendship.
Selah and the Spades
Offering something of a counterpoint to that message is this first feature from writer-director Tayarisha Poe, set at a high-end boarding school. Outside the classroom, it’s largely ruled by four cliques that are ostensibly social clubs, but feel more like individual mob syndicates—complete with drug sales and other illicit activities.
Queen bee of the “Spades” is senior Selah (Lovie Simone), a control freak very concerned with whom she’ll pass the reins to upon graduating and leaving for college. Her pick is newly-arrived scholarship student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a willing acolyte—to a point. But once factional intrigue ramps up, largely thanks to Selah’s own Machiavellian moves, Paloma proves to have a mind of her own. That may be more than Selah (whose perfectionism seems to stem from a horribly exacting mother) is willing to tolerate, and her wrath is to be feared.
This hyper-stylized high school melodrama is barely less of an adolescent fantasy than the Twilight movies. Yet it takes itself verrrrry seriously, with the rival cliques treated like warring royal houses in Game of Thrones—despite the fact that the plot here is a lot closer to Bring It On, minus any humor. Nonetheless, Poe does begin to get at something interesting, in that we gradually realize our titular protagonist isn’t a heroine (or victim) so much as an adult monster in the making. Maybe her wake-up call will come in time…maybe not. This is an intriguing debut, though one hopes the director sheds some of her trying-too-hard mannerisms next time out.
Why Don’t You Just Die!
Speaking of self-conscious directorial flash, here’s another debut feature, this one from Russian writer-director Kirill Sokolov. He’s going to knock your socks off, or die trying—well, his characters are certainly going to die in that effort. Nervous young Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) turns up on the doorstep of corrupt macho cop Andrei (Vitaliy Khaev) claiming to be a friend of the latter’s daughter Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde). That he is, more or less, though it turns out she may have played him for a fool. Meanwhile, however, Matvei intends to visit grievous harm on this apparently very bad father. But Andrei is not exactly easy to overpower, and the rapidly escalating mayhem is further complicated by his wife, a fellow cop, and a pile of hidden loot.
This is a grotesque black comedy of considerable violence and emphatic style, if very little substance—its grand guignol sardonicism recalling the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, among other things, but in an even colder mode of show-off technique for its own sake. It’s a brew with its own peculiarly Russian brand of machismo, misanthropy and misogyny.
Sokolov’s precocious craftsmanship is indeed impressive; every visual and audio decision is clever, and calls attention to that cleverness. But there isn’t a breath of originality, let alone empathy. If you thought Tarantino was self-congratulatory, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet—at least QT likes (some of) his characters. This movie is “fun,” yes (assuming you have the stomach for cynical splatter comedy), but in a loutish way that made me think its admittedly-talented creator should be turned over and spanked.
She’s Allergic to Cats
Also triggering mixed feelings is this first feature by Michael Reich, which has been bouncing around genre festivals for a few years already, only finally reaching home audiences now. But if Why Don’t You Just Die! is as derivative as it is slick, this no-budget goof does deserve credit for hacking out its own very singular path.
Its protagonist Mike Pinckney (played by an actor named Mike Pinckney) is a Hollywood dog groomer and aspiring video artiste not exactly living the glamorous life while hoping to realize his dream project of an all-cat Carrie remake. (Yes, you get to see plenty of that film-within-the-film here.) Things change drastically for him when he meets Cora (Sonja Kinski, daughter of Nastassja), a blase knockout who inexplicably finds him not-unappealing.
Psychedelic and at times batshit-crazy, if also repetitious and hobbled by a wooden female lead (magical Kinski heritage aside, Sonja is no actress), She’s Allergic is an original whatsit that is simultaneously refreshing and irritating. Suffice it to say that Reich funded the project by working as the “body double” for a Daft Punk robot.
We’ll be back with more new releases later in the week, including the striking Icelandic suspense tale A White, White Day, Kinsey scale-confounding comedy Straight Up, and self-explanatory Australian history lesson The True History of the Kelly Gang.